On the cusp: Tigers prospects Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene primed for pivotal spring

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — The two offensive cornerstones of the Tigers’ future were on the back fields at Joker Marchant Stadium on Monday — rocking the Old English D in the bright home whites — taking part in what likely will be the final minor-league minicamp of their careers.

First baseman Spencer Torkelson, 22 now and looking leaner than he did at this time last year, and outfielder Riley Greene, 21 and looking a little more filled out than he did last year, are gearing up for what will potentially be a pivotal spring for both.

Pivotal in that both players have a true shot at breaking camp with the big-league club in 2022.

“The mindset is similar, yet it is a lot different,” said Torkelson, who in his first pro season last year climbed three rungs, all the way to Triple-A Toledo, and produced 30 home runs, 91 RBIs, slugging .552 with a .935 OPS. “There is a chance to get there. But just work hard every day, grind it out and show them you can play at the big-league level.

“And then just let the big guys make the decision.

If Torkelson can lock down the everyday first base job this spring, it would be a big boost for manager AJ Hinch’s infield. It would mean Jonathan Schoop would start at second base, with Javier Baez at shortstop and Jeimer Candelario at third.

If Torkelson doesn’t make it, Hinch would have to mix and match at first with Schoop and Miguel Cabrera, leaving second base wide open for the likes of Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Isaac Paredes or Kody Clemens.

Greene, hard to believe, is already in his fourth professional season (counting the two-plus months he spent at the Tigers’ alternate site in 2020). He also finished last season at Toledo where he slashed .308/.400/.554. Between Double-A Erie and Toledo, Greene played 124 games and logged 558 plate appearances, amassing 24 homers, 84 RBIs, 95 runs, 16 stolen bases and a robust OPS of .921.

Eighty-six of those games were played in center field, which is where, once the lockout lifts and big-league camp commences, Greene might have his best shot at making the Opening Day starting lineup.

“I’m just going to prepare like I’m going to play left, center and right,” Greene said. “Nothing changes how I’m going to prepare, in that sense. I’m just preparing to play the outfield. That’s really it.”

That’s his approach to having his first legitimate shot at breaking with the big-league club, too. Don’t make too much of it.

“I remember (Tigers center fielder) Derek Hill saying in an interview, he said he treats wherever he’s at like the big leagues,” Greene said. “I really took that to heart. That’s what I try to do now, I treat it like I’m in the big leagues.”

Greene, for all his speed and athleticism, doesn’t necessarily profile as a true center fielder. When he’s played in Grapefruit League games the past couple of seasons, he played almost exclusively in right field. But he had 205 fielding plays in center last year and made just three errors.

With JaCoby Jones, Derek Hill, Akil Baddoo and Victor Reyes playing most of the games in center field last season, the Tigers ranked 30th, dead last, in center field defense. So the bar for Greene isn’t set overly high.

“That doesn’t really change anything for me,” he said. “I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can and everything else will take care of itself. I didn’t really change anything last year. I went out, played hard and did what I had to do, and I didn’t make the team. Whatever.

“But I’m just going to control what I can control and the rest will take care of itself.”

If he can win the center field position, it will allow Hinch to keep Robbie Grossman in right field, with Baddoo in left and either Reyes or Hill as the fourth outfielder.

Not to mention the offensive boost both Greene and Torkelson could give to the lineup.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Contrasting offseasons

Both are coming off very different offseasons. For one, they were finally able to get away from the game. They’d both been playing non-stop, Torkelson since February 2020 and Greene since February 2019.

Torkelson’s break was forced, though. He had to sit out five weeks after he suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his right ankle playing in the Arizona Fall League.

“It was good to take a little break, but I was itching to get back out there as soon as the ankle was all better,” he said. “I had a good offseason, just relaxing, hanging out and working out. It was good.”

More: On mend, Spencer Torkelson works toward chance to mash for Tigers in 2022

Judging from the way he was moving around first base Monday, taking ground balls from Hall-of-Famer Alan Trammell (who turned 64 Monday), and spraying line drives into the gap during batting practice, the ankle issue is in the rearview.

“I really emphasized getting stronger this offseason, and being more consistent in the box,” he said. “Just being short to the ball. When I struggled, I notice myself coming around (the ball) or pulling off. It goes to the mental toughness of keeping that approach even it’s the 120th game.”

Torkelson did seem to wear down a bit once he got to Toledo last year. He ended up hitting .238 there in 40 games, striking out 36 times in 177 plate appearances.

He came to camp 10 pounds lighter, with what he feels like is more lean muscle than last year.

“I feel really good,” he said. “I credit that to my girlfriend (Makenna Mattei). She cooked a lot this offseason so I wasn’t DoorDashing a bunch (laughs). I ate a lot cleaner. And I put a gym in my garage, so when I got the itch to work out I could just buzz in there for a little while.”

Greene took the opposite approach. Tigers nutritionist Maureen Stoecklein, please avert your eyes. He’s purposely put on weight this offseason.

“I ate a lot more,” he said. “I had a lot of Chick-fil-A and a lot of Chipotle — probably not a good diet. I tried to put on some more pounds because going back to last season, I lost a few pounds as the season went on. I am trying to get a little bigger and I know I’m going to lose weight as we go on.”

Greene took an unconventional route with his offseason skills training, too. He wanted to see more live pitching so, he has some friends — professional pitchers he opted not to name — throw to him at his old high school field, Hagerty High in Oviedo, Fla.

“The ball does not fly on that field, I can tell you that,” he said. “It still doesn’t. I don’t care how strong you are, the ball don’t fly there.”

It’s the same frustration he’s going to feel when he hits 400-foot outs in cavernous Comerica Park.

One day, Greene even took part in his high school’s live scrimmage, jumping into the batter’s box against high school pitchers.

“I didn’t run or play outfield or anything, just took at-bats,” he said. “I was like, ‘I cannot strikeout because I will not hear the end of it.’”

He did not strikeout, for the record.

A crowded house

Greene and Torkelson are again sharing a house in Lakeland. This time their housemates include shortstop Ryan Kreidler and outfielders Parker Meadows and Eric De La Rosa. It’s a four-bedroom house. Do the math — somebody is sharing a bedroom.

You’d think the two bonus babies would get their own room, right? Nope.

“I share a room with Parker,” Torkelson said. “He got there late. I just took one for the team.”

That’s leadership.

The house they shared with catcher Jake Rogers last year was next to a lake. No lake this year, just a pool and a hot tub — a stone’s throw from a golf course.

“It’s a good group,” Greene said. “Usually we’re just sitting on the couch watching golf or baseball. I’m usually pretty tired after these workouts. It’s good to just come back and relax.”

You might remember, too, that Torkelson cut his hand trying to open a can with a knife last year.

“I didn’t bring a can opener, but if I need one I will go to the store,” he said, laughing.

And another year wiser.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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